The Great Paper Chase

My great-great-grandfather Francis Sollom died over a hundred years ago. He left behind a leather diary that we found when cleaning out my parents’ garage. On the first page, Francis had written, Extracts that pleased me. F.S., Nov. 1892, Bohemia Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea.

The book is completely filled with his fountain pen. He recorded quotes from writers like Byron, Shakespeare, and Longfellow, and others I had never heard of such as Samuel Smiles or Sydney Smith. He wrote their quotes under headings like “Regaining Honour,” “Cure for Influenza,” “To Get Rid of the Blues,” and “The Age of Love.” What advice I found in this little book! He covered all things social and political in the late 19th century in Great Britain, including results from the July 1895 election.

The best part was a letter I found inside, written a piece of marbled stationery and tucked inside the back. The paper was stamp-embossed with a symbol of a winged dragon, with the words veritas vincit. The letter reads:

 

20th May 1896

Dear Mr. Sollom:

I am sending you back the handkerchief you so kindly lent me at the paper-chase. Also, one to replace the one you tore up on my behalf, which I trust you will kindly accept, with my sincere thanks for all your courteous attention and kindness to me. I have never ceased to reproach myself for spoiling your run.

With kind regards, 

Believe me, Truly yours,

Constance Bridge

 

Paper Chase? I had to look up what it meant. It’s an outdoor game where one person is designated the “hare,” who takes off, leaving behind shreds of paper representing his or her trail. Everyone else play hounds, and they chase the hare and try to find the person before he or she reaches  the finish line. But the paper trail sometimes moves about with the wind—so it’s not so easy to capture the hare before the end.

Clearly, my very honorable great-great-grandfather Francis must forsaken one of his crisp white handkerchiefs to leave a trail for some hare-chasing woman named Constance. Or perhaps she fell over a pricker bush and needed a bandage and he stopped to wrap a tourniquet around her shin.

Why did we ever leave the Romantic era? Did we have to give up being so frivolous and sentimental? I don’t know many men these days under the age of 60 who use a handkerchief—Kleenex is so much more practical. And even if a man has a hanky in his pocket, I don’t know many who would tear one up on a girl’s behalf. Now that women are no longer so delicate and fainting all the time due to those nasty corsets, we don’t need men to dab at our foreheads. Chivalry is most definitely dead in that arena.

I found it funny that my great-great-grandfather had a book of his favorite quotes and ideas, because I have one too. My quotes have come not from dusty hardcover classics that I read by candlelight after dinner, or from sitting around in smoking rooms telling stories. Mine come from the Internet and from emails with friends. I print out what I like and tape the pieces into a purple suede-covered notebook. I wouldn’t dream of copying the quotes over by hand. And I don’t have any thank-you notes inside my diary—I don’t remember the last time I received one worth saving.

Francis clearly loved words, as do I. And he appreciated interesting ideas. I found an excerpt of his own writing on page 21: “On the Formation & Analysis of a Direct Sigh.” Or, from October 1893, “How to Take a Bath Without Towels.” 

Today, I’m sighing a bit myself that I never knew Francis, or his son Cuthbert, who was my great-grandfather. And my grandmother, and my mother, are now gone too; four generations of Solloms have simply disappeared. But Francis’s diary is a little gift to me, a puzzle. I’m in my own paper chase now. He’s the hare, and I’m the hound sniffing after his life. I’m slowly piecing together the tiny scraps that I find skipping in the wind, trying to figure out who we all are.